Industry Insiders: Joe Dobias, ‘Agressive American’ Chef

In the summer of 2008, Joe Dobias and Jill Schulster opened JoeDoe, the 27-seat restaurant Joe dreamed of starting since he graduated from Cornell University’s Hotel School in ’01. Joe, who helped open New York restaurants like VietCafe, Sullivan Diner and SavorNY is known for his creative and challenging approach to food. Almost every night you can see him in the kitchen, cooking and plating dishes from his “Aggressive American” menu. Earlier this week, he spoke with us about the challenges of owning a small restaurant when everyone with a Twitter account and a camera is a critic.

How did you start cooking? The easiest explanation is that my mom went back to work. I started cooking with my sister. Over the years, when I was probably eight or nine, I started taking it a little more seriously by procuring recipes and things of that nature to cook for the family. Also, I figured out early that if you did the cooking you didn’t have to do the dishes.

You recently won first place in the TV show, Chopped. What was that experience like? Chopped was the craziest cooking challenge I’ve ever done. It was sort of like an SAT for chefs. You don’t really know what you’re getting into. You need to use all the skills you’ve gained over the years.

Was it good for the restaurant and your career overall? Those types of shows are looked at in two different lights. One, you’re a sell-out, trying to make yourself famous off of nothing. The flip side of it is people these days are going out to display talent they have on a much more national level as opposed to waiting and waiting and waiting to get discovered. It’s just another tool to promote the business. Do I hang my hat on Chopped? No. It was so long ago that I’ve had many many months to think about before that went on TV. It’s irrelevant to what’s happening with the business at this moment.

JoeDoe is practically neighbors with LES legend, Prune. How does this affect your business? First and foremost, I don’t think that we serve the exact same clientele. I’m a lot younger; Jill’s a lot younger. We have a different demographic. Secondly, we have a different product. Yes, there is crossover, but no, I don’t think that there’s ever been a time where people can’t get into Prune and then they come here. Either they come here or go there.

You describe your food as “Aggressive American.” What do you mean by that? Jill and I came up with Aggressive American, again, to separate ourselves from the pack. We opened the place, really, for the shepherds if you will, not the sheep. I’m looking for people who don’t mind being challenged when they go out to eat and don’t see it as threatening. Also, I’m looking for people who come for what we do and not for any other reason. How do we differentiate ourselves while using the farm-fresh ingredients and all these other things? I would have thrown up if we called ourselves “Haute Barnyard” or “Farm to Table” or anything like that.

What are your go-to restaurants? Our go-to restaurants are anything Blue Ribbon. The model that the Bromberg brothers put together for Blue Ribbon is unbelievable because it’s built on really satisfied employees. That’s something that I’ve modeled my business after. I also like Zucco, Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, Oro Bakery, Fatty Crab, Nicky’s.

What chefs do you admire? It’s kind of a difficult question because I didn’t train under anyone for a long period of time. As far as having a mentor, I don’t really think I do. I admire Thomas Keller, but I don’t think I’m ever going to cook the kind of food that he does. I think that Wylie Dufresne is pretty outstanding. Again, he makes food that I’d never be able to conceptualize myself or enjoy cooking.

The most difficult part about your job? The hardest part about the restaurant industry is the ancillary things that come up these days outside the restaurant itself. The restaurant part is tough by nature, but if you work in the business day-to-day it’s not the stuff that kills you. It’s all the things you can’t control.

Biggest perk of the industry? Having chef friends and restaurant friends. It’s always been very alluring, and a cool industry where you get to stay up late, go out late, eat late, drink late. It’s adrenaline fueled.

You’ve had some recent cracks at your Twitter habits. Do you think Twitter is helping or hurting the industry overall? I think Twitter is good and bad. Good in that you’re learning things ‘from the horses mouth’. People can instantly connect their ideas and thoughts with other people. It’s bad because of the likelihood that some blog will misrepresent your tweet or use it out of context. Today’s world is removing the squeaky clean images a lot of folks were able to put out prior to the Internet. Simply put: taking out the BS. It just adds a new kind of BS.

If you could only eat one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be? Pizza from Colosseo, a place from Long Island, near where I grew up. I think it’s still the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life. Pizza, by nature, is a simple food and I think it’s absolutely fucking stupid that burgers and pizza and fried chicken and all this other bullshit are so popular and all these high flying restaurants that probably would have laughed people out of the place if they ever said you should cook fried chicken here or burgers are now cooking it. I think that speaks to who I am. I’m a blue collar guy. Even when I make it I’m still gonna be a blue collar guy. If I’m gonna eat fancy food I like to do it in jeans.

Where do you see yourself and the restaurant in ten years? In ten years I see us not just in this restaurant actually. I don’t want multiple JoeDoes everywhere because I want to cook the food for people in the restaurants. I don’t see how franchising out my name would do any justice in the end. I want to have a diverse portfolio to make money as opposed to having multiple restaurants of the same quality and same nature, like Union Square Hospitality Group. We’ve been talking about doing a sandwich shop recently.